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Archaeo News 

26 August 2008
Bronze Age building saved from erosion by sea

A Bronze Age structure thought to have been used as a sauna has been saved from destruction by the sea after a team of archaeologists moved the entire find to a safer location. The building, which dates from between 1500 BCE and 1200 BCE, was unearthed on the Shetland island of Bressay (Scotland) eight years ago. It was found in the heart of the Burnt Mound at Cruester, a Bronze Age site on the coast of Bressay facing Lerwick. But earlier this summer, because of the increased threat of coastal erosion, local historians joined archaeologists to launch a campaign to save the building and to move it somewhere safer.
     A third of the mound had already been lost to sea erosion. The central structure was carefully dismantled and each stone numbered before being moved to a site a mile way next to Bressay Heritage Centre. Archaeologists from St Andrews University worked alongside local volunteers for three months to move the building and then rebuild at a site next to the Bressay Heritage Centre. And following the completion of the unusual removal scheme, the Bronze Age building has been officially opened at its new location by Tavish Scott, the MSP for Shetland.
     Douglas Coutts, the project officer with Bressay History Group, said the structure - discovered during excavations in 2000 - was one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in the Northern Isles. The building was hidden in a mound of burnt stones and is thought to have been used for feasts, baths or even saunas. The structure comprises a series of dry-stone, walled cells, connected by two corridors. At the end of one corridor is a hearth cell, thought to have been used for heating stones, and at the other end is a tank sunk into the ground which is almost two metres long, more than a metre wide, and half a metre deep, thought to have been used for boiling meat.
     Mr Coutts said: "Burnt mounds don't usually consist of very much more than a hearth and a tank and a heap of burnt stones. But in Shetland, we seem to have much more complex structures with little rooms or cells leading off from a main passageway which connects the hearth and tank. We have approximately 300 burnt mounds on Shetland but only four or five have been excavated and, of those, the Cruester mound is the most fascinating and complex. It looks as if it has been in use for anything between 500 to 1,000 years." He added: "One theory is that these structures may have been used for cooking meat or tanning hides. But it is possible they could have raised steam by heating the water and that these little cells could have been used as saunas."
     John Scott, vice chairman of the Bressay History Group, said: "We probably moved about 60 tonnes of stone altogether so it has had the nice attraction of being a bit of a daft project but it worked and I think it has turned out to be a really good community project." Tom Dawson, a researcher at St Andrews University who also worked on the removal project, said coastal erosion was threatening thousands of archaeological sites around Scotland. "The local group here came up with a novel idea for dealing with the problem," he said. "It is great to have had the chance to give new life to this particular site and make it accessible to future generations, while also learning something new, not just about Cruester, but about burnt mounds in general."

Source: BBC News (22 August 2008), The Scotsman, The Herald, The Press and Journal (23 August 2008)

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